Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Dark Ages are Coming for Engineering Education...

Aside from that, this is a bit of rant... and this is what set me off:

Around Christmastime I was given one of these by my mother's boyfriend. Unfortunately somehow I had lost it during the move and with my mother and her boyfriend coming to visit soon-- I decided to go and buy one to replace the lost one. 

Meet my Apple "Magic" Trackpad.

It's nice.
I like it and enjoy using it.  After all, its a very well designed multi-touch capacitive touch bluetooth mousepad. It's exactly like the trackpad on my macbook, except I can sit on my couch and use it instead of having to have the machine on my lap. No problems here.

But, it's not the product that I object to...

It's the Marketing of the product.

Marketing a consumer electronics product as "magic" really does not do me any favors. Labeling electronics as "magic" gives the people the illusion that those who design/work with electronics are some class of "wizards and warlocks".

Just because you cannot see electrons moving with the naked eye, doesn't mean that it's magic.

Consider, several hundred years ago we couldn't see germs... and doctors in the middle ages were seen as a cross between a religious man and a wizard. There was no understanding on what made people sick, where disease came from-- and people lived in fear and superstition about life and death. The common man was vulnerable for those who wished to take advantage of these fears and superstitions. The practicing early health care professional struggled to overcome the emotion and misconception in order to advance their profession.
A Mid-Evil Alchemy/Health Chart

It wasn't until the breakthrough of understanding germs and micro-organisms did the medical profession begin to make significant advances. Furthermore, it wasn't until the layman understood these impacts did we see the benefits of these advances. No longer was being a doctor a charter handed down from God, but rather it was a learned skill to contribute to the common good. 

Look at modern day. Except the issue at hand isn't the germ, but rather how electronics work. In a day that more and more consumer applications are having higher levels of electronic content, it's odd how little the common person understands the mechanics how those devices work. As the dependency on these items increases so should the amount of people who understand them. But it's not the case. 

In America, it's harder and harder to recruit students to want to become electrical and computer engineers working with electronics. Engineering is difficult to begin with, but Electrical and Computer Engineers are seen as a subclass within these groups. 

I remember when I was in school seeing a shirt that said, "You can't spell "Geek" without EE". More recently I saw a similar one that said, "You can't get spell "Creep" without EE." 

The overall issue? It's difficult to get students to relate to and understand what a EE or CE major does. 
Mostly because there is a sort of misconception that what they do is on par to communing with the "dark arts" and only those with very special powers should/could/would want to do that. 
After all, "magic" can only be preformed by a select few.

As comical as it is to imagine looking at the electronics industry almost like a Harry Potter book... as an Engineering Education professional, I'm more alarmed by the subtle cultural impact these attitudes have.

First, it perpetuates the "us" versus "them" mentality. That knowledge of electronics would not normally cross camps and should be concentrated to an elite few (which is probably why Apple also refers to their store helpers as "geniuses"). 

Second as a result of elitism around electronics understanding there comes a risk that there are too few players in a market that...

Thirdly, is growing and people are starting to shape their lives around and become dependent upon.

 (If you don't believe me on this dependency, go and put a little ball of paper between the ethernet jack on your router/modem and the ethernet cable... and watch how vehemently the occupants needing the internet act when they can't figure out what's wrong. Props for anyone who has someone in their house that will unplug it and look to see what is causing the issue, but I doubt they would go through the trouble). 

Fourth, this same population that is trusting that the technology they are using is there to enhance their lives will be first to cry out and call foul when a perceived offense occurs... and somehow the lack of their ability to make an informed decision is blamed on the few (pretty much analogous to the American Financial Systems where people were taking out home loans they didn't understand trusting that the Bank would tell them if something was amiss).

Lastly, other countries don't appear to have this same passive attitude for understanding electronics. And although we may be innovators today-- as the supply of engineers dries out, we will have to turn to other countries to fill those demands. Instead of driving innovation by having the best and most creative minds at work, we will just be maintaining the status quo.

If anyone were to make a significant impact to helping reverse this?... it could be Apple.
Apple with their incredible reach, cult following and ability to inspire people to appreciate technology is  amiss their responsibility here.
Instead they choose to perpetuate the gap between electronics know-how and the layman. Charging a premium for the "ease of use" and benefiting from the fact that many people can't bother to learn how the product works.
After all, why would you when a "genius" will answer your question about your "magic" product?

Type in the word "Magic" on the Apple Store and these are the results...

On that note...
I have to go to work.
And I will need to resist the urge to re-name all of my daily interactions at the semi-conductor company I work for with World of Warcraft references.

IF you are interested here's a link to the Trackpad teardown.
I do appreciate how well designed the trackpad is. I just don't want to diminish the amount of brilliant engineering to something as superfluous as "magic".

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